Venice 2013: Gravity Is Out Of This World
Posted on Thursday August 29, 2013, 14:08 by Damon Wise in Words From The Wise
Tradition is a big part of the Venice Film Festival. It’s tradition that nothing ever works or is open when you get here, to probably the most expensive of the calendar’s main film events. This year there was a new twist, in that anything that previously worked was changed or dispensed with altogether, but what one can usually rely on is the quality of the films. This year, even that has taken a battering, with many of the autumn’s heavy hitters – notably Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave – going straight to Toronto, which begins next week. But there is one more tradition that may yet be the saving grace of this year’s edition.
Because the main tradition here in Venice is a long-standing love affair with George Clooney, the silver-fox mayor of Hollywood, who has been coming here for ritual humiliation by press conference for some years now. He has been handcuffed and ‘married’ (Intolerable Cruelty), chased by a woman in running shorts (Burn After Reading) and importuned by a gay man who dropped his trousers to reveal a handwritten message on his torso (that might have been The Me Who Stare At Goats, but don’t hold me to that). This, year, though, the “press”, (we use the word loosely here) were a little more respectful, and for once the promotional chores for his latest did not degenerate into the usual circus.
That’s because Gravity is pretty exceptional, and for once even Clooney’s true movie-star gravitas cannot outshine the technical and human elements of this extraordinary movie. Gravity is the sort of thing you’d think Hollywood wouldn’t make simply because it isn’t possible, not just because its lead character is a woman and there is no plot in the traditional sense. But Alfonso Cuaron’s latest film is quite awe-inspiring in all these departments, plausibly creating a majestic outer-space scenario that actually doesn’t need the 3D treatment to convince. And most of all, it features the first true Oscar-bait performance of the season from Sandra Bullock, who, as the luckless scientist Ryan Stone, finds herself cut adrift from her space station with only the wry Matt Kowalski (Clooney) for company. Now, Bullock has been in race-against-time stuff before, having invented the genre with Speed. But Gravity is a very different beast, racing surprisingly quickly though its curt 90-odd-minute running time and delivering character, emotion and even a dash of philosophy as the doomsday clock counts down.
The set-up is handled very quickly in a lean script written by Cuaron with his son Jonas. Ryan is investigating a broken satellite’s computer system when an explosion on Earth sets off a chain reaction that sends clouds of dangerous debris at bullet speed into the area where Ryan and Kowalski are working. Their shuttle is badly damaged, so the pair float off to find help from a nearby space station, faced with limited battery life and depleted oxygen. How this will play out for another 80 minutes seems a mystery on paper, but the Cuarons explore every possibility, all the while creating a seamless zero-gravity environment, the most impressive since 2001. What’s more interesting is that, at the height of its action-movie mid-section, there’s a little respite that adds just enough of a breather before plunging us, with Ryan, into the nailbiting last act.
The film was broadly well received in Venice, although some griped about the New Age elements and the rather obvious nature of some of the otherwise economical emotional beats. There are certainly some of those That Movie elements about the dialogue, notably in the scenes between Ryan and Kowalski. But that’s because this is That Movie, and it’s triumph is in the way in which the Cuarons, aided by British producer David Heyman, have delivered something so unique to a traditional formula. Bullock, though, is the standout in a film where, because of the 3D, quite a lot of things stand out, but the key here is depth, which is where most 3D films fall, ironically enough, flat. If you thought she got her last Oscar just for being popular, this should disabuse you of that notion; in Gravity she delivers a technical performance of strength and grace that never bounces you out of the picture even while you’re wondering how the hell they did it. The Venice public went wild for it, and hopefully the festival will learn from this story of a woman so wrapped up her in herself that she needs to come back down to Earth.
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